Young Tiger fan forms bond with Missouri Softball team
COLUMBIA - It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, which means 10-year-old Ryleigh Patience is outside practicing her softball skills in her front yard.
Patience discovered a love for the sport because it was one of the few she could participate in after doctors diagnosed her with MPS 1, or Hurler's Syndrome. The disease occurs when someone's body lacks the enzyme that breaks down waste molecules in cells.
Her dad, Jerome Patience, named off a laundry list of procedures she has already had to undergo due to the condition, "At age 10, she's had carpel tunnel and trigger finger surgery, she's got a leaky heart valve that she's taking medication for, she's got water on the brain, she has hearing aids, she's had her hips broken and put back into place, plates put into both knees," he said. "Really we see about every specialist group that our children's hospital here has, because it affects every major body system."
Yet, upon meeting the young girl, full of happiness and joy, you would never know what she has gone through with her health.
No more than five minutes into her softball session, Patience has already shown multiple signs of what she wants to do when she grows up, which is be a softball coach.
"You've got to squeeze the mitt," she instructs her brother Reagan, who is her catch partner for the day.
For about five to ten minutes, the two repeat about the same process, back and forth the ball goes, with the elder Patience giving out her secret tips whenever she feels necessary.
Beyond just her daily dose of softball as a player, Patience also has latched on with one of the top collegiate softball teams in the country, at the University of Missouri.
The relationship began with one of Patience's school projects, where she did a living wax museum.
After a suggestion from a local softball coach, she did her research on legendary Liberty Softball Coach Dot Richardson.
"From that, she decided, hey she'd love to meet Dot Richardson, we contacted Make-A-Wish, they made that happen, and we got to meet Dot at her invitational in Clermont, Florida," her mom Aimee Patience said.
The Missouri Softball Team was also a participant at the invitational, so Richardson thought it only right for Patience to meet a team that she was a fan of back home.
"Our first appointment for the day was to go watch the Mizzou girls play, and in between their doubleheader that day, Ryleigh got to go out and meet some of them," her father said.
That wasn't where the story ended though.
"Not too long after we got home, Assistant Coach Gina Schneider contacted us and said 'Hey, we'd love to have Ryleigh come down for a weekend, and just hang out in the dugout and be the bat girl," her father said.
Patience came down for the Saturday game of the Auburn series in late March, threw out the first pitch and was the honorary bat girl and assistant coach.
She and the players had an instant chemistry together.
"She came in and she owned that outfit, she owned the uniform, she owned the dugout," said Missouri Sr. Center fielder Taylor Gadbois. "It wasn't hard at all to just smile at her and get to know her, she's jsut so happy and you just want to be around her," she said.
From that moment on, Patience became part of the team. She has since come down to Mizzou for two other games, against LSU and Florida, and she's performed many fo the same duties in the dugout, but the connection has grown beyond just bat girl and ballplayers.
"She's not just another bat girl, she means more than that to us," Missouri Jr. Right fielder Emily Crane said. "Having her in the dugout really brightens our faces on the field, and knowing that when we run in she's always going to be giving us a high-five, really brings that family atmosphere to the team."
Beyond just a large support group for Ryleigh, it gives her parents relief seeing a group of athletes take in her daughter so easily.
"It's amazing, as a parent, to see the influence your 10-year old can have on some of these other people, and then obviously she has a ball," her father said. "One of the things we've always tried to do with her is to treat her as if she's just a normal kid that does everything everybody else does, and for her to just be able to walk in and be accepted with this group of elite athletes is just really cool to see."
"Having college girls embrace her and say 'Oh my gosh, her spirit, and the way she makes us feel in the dugout and the energy that's here when she's here,' is awesome and I think, as a parent, we're just lucky we get to spend time with her every single day and I think the girls really see something special in her," her mother said.
Something special that helps Patience chase her dream every day, no matter what obstacles stand in her way.